Managing Universities: Dodging the Dead Cat


Dead cat cartoon

UK universities have not had a good summer. Politicians and media have found that bashing the academy is an appropriate distraction from the creeping national catastrophe of Brexit. As one noted spin doctor remarked, throw a dead cat on the table and everyone starts talking about the dead cat rather than the serious problem. Universities are one favoured deceased feline. However, quite a few on their own side have joined in, particularly in attacks on university administration. These at least have a global resonance.

Writing in The Guardian, André Spicer, professor of organizational behaviour at Cass Business School in London, argued that much of the recent growth in university funding had gone into expanding administration. Two thirds of UK universities now had more employees classified as administrators than they did academics. He demanded an end to ‘empty administration’ and ‘bullshit jobs’. Similar lamentations can be found here and here. Unsurprisingly, there were robust responses. On the Wonkhe website, Paul Greatrix, registrar (chief operating officer) at a research university, defended the contribution of university administrators. They were not Victorian servants to be patronized below stairs but prevented the diversion of academics from their proper duties in teaching and research. His choice of examples was perhaps unfortunate:

There is not much point in hiring a world-leading scholar if she has to do her all her own photocopying, spend a day a week sorting out software updates or washing the windows because there aren’t any other staff to do this work.

He would not have to go far to find a university where world-leading scholars were expected to do all three of these tasks – perhaps not washing windows but certainly emptying waste-paper bins, if these had been allowed at all.

Universities, as organizations, need both academics and administrators. However, there has been a failure to achieve the necessary institutional and cultural adjustments to modern conditions. Fifty years ago, administrators did just administer. They were indeed Victorian servants to smaller numbers of academics in much smaller universities. Those universities were only lightly regulated and faced few external demands for accountability.

The most important income flows for UK universities are teaching, research and consulting, generated by the academics. Everything else is an overhead. Academics are like the partners in a professional firm. They are the rainmakers, whose efforts pay everyone else’s salary.  Having said this, it is clear that many academics prefer not to think of themselves in that way: from the margins of the UK academy, I am increasingly struck by the sense of entitlement among my former colleagues, the belief that the world owes them a living. At the same time, I am also struck by the lack of acknowledgement among administrators and managers that their own jobs and careers are underpinned by the efforts of the academics on the front line. For many purposes, those academics are going to be better informed about the market for their work and the strategies for generating income from it. Victorian servants are not a bad model for respecting academics, listening to them and supporting them. This not need not exclude guiding them, much as the estate gamekeeper would direct their employer towards specific targets on a shoot.

The debate would be helped if we were clearer about the different kinds of ‘administration’. There are important specialist functions in areas like ICT, estates and finance, that require distinctive professional skills. The problem here is responsiveness. Open-plan offices may be cheap to construct, and fashionable with estates staff, but are inimical to much academic business. The rainmakers are entitled to determine how their money is spent on their accommodation. Similar examples can be found in areas like IT and procurement, especially travel, where systems are designed for administrative convenience rather than end users.

A second group are the shadow bureaucrats required to service the growing number of regulators intervening in UK universities. Academics often attack these administrators for bringing meddlesome messages rather than the original authors. The shift from direct public subsidy to a fee-based system was supposed to liberate UK universities but governments have been unable to resist micro-management. Much of the proliferation of administrative workload is down to this environmental pressure. Regulation also tends to drive centralization. It is more convenient to hold organizations accountable than to deal with business units or individual professionals. These drivers will not be reduced unless the UK can acquire the large, rich, and academically respected private sector that discourages excessive state government meddling in US public universities.

Finally, the local administrative staff in any department or other business unit are traditionally valued members of the delivery team. The problem here is the break-up of those teams, with these staff being made accountable to central administration or pulled into service units at faculty, campus or university level. Local management lose the power to develop flexible solutions to organizational challenges. Many years ago, for example, I asked my department’s reception staff to administer most applications for essay extensions according to a local protocol. This diverted mundane work from academics, enriched the roles of the clerical staff, and gave quicker responses to students. What’s not to like? Except that a quality assurance manager decided without consultation that all extensions had to be agreed by academics…

Academics have been disengaged, disengaged themselves, or never been engaged with the challenges of working in, and for, very complex organizations. Management and administration are not seen as presenting intellectual challenges, and creative satisfactions, at least equivalent to those of teaching or research. Local business units are rarely faced with the consequences of entrepreneurial failures. Most critically, the business units never get to hold the centre to account. I well recall the horror on a registrar’s face when I proposed that his department should be scrutinized for efficiency and effectiveness by an audit team of current or former department heads, just as their departments were regularly scrutinized by his central team. While this is predominantly about the rainmakers ensuring that their money is being spent wisely, it is also an educational opportunity, for the academic community to understand the necessity for professional support and the value that it adds, whether in terms of efficiency, reputation management or regulatory compliance.

The dead cat may be a diversion – but it may also be worth conducting an autopsy.

Robert Dingwall is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.


Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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